‘Boundary Road Brewery’ needs scare-quotes around it, because it’s not properly a thing. It’s a sub-brand of Independent Liquor, who were recently acquired by Japanese supergiant Asahi, and they’re trying to position themselves as a “craft brewer” alongside the pseudo-craft imprints of D.B. and Lion (i.e., Monteith’s and Mac’s)1 and elbow their way into New Zealand’s long-standing mainstream duopoly. Part of their launch campaign was to open one of their beers up for a bit of a public beta. The ‘Chosen One’ would exist in three possible variants, which they’d maybe send you (and 998 others) if you answered a quiz correctly, then you could vote and the favourite would go into full production. Not, I have to say, an inherently terrible idea — think of it, generously, as an idiot’s version of the Garage Project ‘24/24’ phase.
My friend Martin Craig — of the lamentably-now-parked NZ Beer Blog — somehow became taster #999+, side-stepping the quiz and just getting an ‘Official Beer Tasters’ Pack’ in the post, unrequested, and he hit upon the idea of a blind-ish tasting. We’d try the three candidates, with two other Independent-brewed mainstream pale lagers, and throw in a control: Mussel Inn ‘Golden Goose’, something of a darling of the local scene, sentimental favourite and — let’s say — the Thinking Drinker’s golden lager.
I’ve done a few rather-official blind beer tastings2 over the last year and I’ve had a bucket of fun and learnt a whole pile of learnable things, but I just can’t shake the oddness of them. Time and again, I’d be sitting there, attempting to fairly judge something on a several-point scale, and stuck wanting to know what the beer said about itself before really feeling I could say much about it.3 It’s probably down to my history as a bartender, that ‘consumer’-ish focus, and it’s difficult for me to shake. (And I suppose I don’t think it should be shaken.)
Blind tastings are good for many things, and they excel at one thing in particular: fault detection — the technical merits (or lack thereof) can leap out of a sampling glass, when you don’t know what you’re getting and your loyalties and sympathies are all quieted. But this? This was an ordeal. It wasn’t entirely blind — we knew what our six beers would be, but they were shuffled and properly anonymised, at least — but it was a cavalcade of awfulness. Perhaps this was karmic payback for my All-the-Trappists tasting last year; this was The Crappest Dance Card, if you like.
Mercifully, Golden Goose stuck out like a sore thumb. Or rather, it stuck out like the only non-injured digit on an otherwise horrificially-mangled and apparently-diseased hand. I was briefly worried that it wouldn’t, that my fondness for it would prove more imagined and circumstantial than real or deserved. But no. All five Independent beers were awful, stuck in that truly tragic territory were more flavourlessness would be an asset, so highly did they stink of faults. On balance, the potential ‘Chosens’ were worse than their existing stable-mates, which didn’t bode well for Independent’s ‘craft’ excursion — and nothing I’ve tried of theirs, since, gives me reason to hope otherwise — and absolutely nothing about them gave the impression of a genuine attempt to market-test three different ideas.
It’s brandwank all over again, I’m afraid. There’s nothing sincere about any of this, it seems. “Craft” here is a cloak, a gimmick, and potentially an unfortunate thing for those of us with a love of actual craft beer — if Joe Public is finally moved to see what “this craft beer stuff” is all about and he picks up some Boundary Road, I couldn’t blame him for being scared off (or at best just underwhelmed). Independent Liquor make under-license local clones of famous foreign names like Carlsberg and Kingfisher, an act of brand-first wankery of the highest order, and they make a dizzying variety of RTDs, some of which come in a three-litre box, for fuck’s sake. If your portfolio includes both of those things, then I submit you are an Industrial Alcoholic Beverages Manufacturer. You just aren’t within shouting distance of being a “craft brewer”.4
It’s all so boringly predictable, too. Geography, for example, seems to be a weak point (or at least a strange obsession) when the brandwankers attempt to dress up mass-market industrial lager as ‘craft’. While Monteith’s (or their ad agency) couldn’t quite figure out how to work their GPS, and Boundary Road / Independent seem to have trouble looking at a map — or out their window. The bumf keeps insisting that they’re “nestled in the foothills of the Hunua Ranges”, but no; they’re in an industrial park no more than two kilometres from State Highway One, in the Southern outskirts of Auckland. Google Maps is hardly a secret spycraft gizmo, so that sort of myth-making is just insulting and pointless. But they just can’t help themselves.
With Asahi-money behind them, ‘Boundary Road’ are going to make a real run at the New Zealand market — and are doing fairly well, sales-wise, from what I can gather. But it’s just so cynical and fundamentally crap that I just can’t cheer them on even when they give the Current Big Two a fright or a poke in the ribs; they’re not on “our side”, and they’ll be perfectly happy as one member of a Future Big Three if they can swing it. They’re demonstrating more of the same zero-sum thinking as the mainstream guys always do, rather than the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats market-growing outlook that is so characteristic of the actually-craft sector — on a good day.
Original Diary entry: ‘Chosen One’ Choosing 28/6/11 with Martin @ MH. #1: Slightly hazy. All others clear. Colours all damn close. Straw nose. Big feel. Bitterness evident. #2 Brings grimness to the nose. Much thinner. More metal? Coarse bubbles. #3 Less grim, but not pleasantly straw like 1. More metal in the nose. Tinned fruit. Middling body. More to it than 2, but not all in good ways. #4 Stinks. Fumes, eggs. Sour in the face. Thin. Cardboard. Hoping it’s the older one… #5 Half the nose of 4. Something wrong in the flavour. Thin, too. #6 Head retention strikingly ok. Sugary sweet. Oddly unnatural. Sweet apple.
Unblinding: #1: Golden Goose, #2: ‘A’, #3: NZ Pure, #4: ‘C’, #5: Frontier, #6: ‘B’.
1: I almost feel bad, lumping Mac’s and Monteith’s so closely. They are near-identical efforts, branding-wise, but I think it does have to be admitted that many of the Mac’s beers are reliably non-horrible and the sorts of things that a “beer drinker” can console themselves with in a mainstream-tied venue. I don’t think I can say the same of the Monteith’s beers.
2: I was on the panel of one for Consumer magazine, and the most-recent annual Capital Times one.
3: To elaborate, but not derail things completely: I don’t feel like I can rate a beer without knowing how it positions itself, because that’s how people ‘judge’ beer in their daily lives — against its claims. Something that “does what it says on the tin” is a laudable thing in itself, when you’re handing over money. Beers are judged in classes, but outside of formal competitions these are usually pretty loose, so it’s hard to critically evaluate something that is “pale ale” without knowing if it’s trying to be, say, rambunctious or sedate. Huge hoppy flavour would be a bad thing in a beer that said it was mild.
4: Admit it, the odds were slim that a post with a ‘brandwank’ tag wouldn’t include a mention of Moa — but in this case they truly brought it upon themselves. In January 2012, they put up a post on ‘Craftwashing’ — which is indeed exactly what this is — but couldn’t save themselves from pissing a lot of people off with a needless swipe at contract brewers and a hefty dose of irony in that they themselves come damn close to breaching the spirit of their own Third Commandment given how strenuously they distort the role of their “figurehead”, Josh Scott. If you are as drenched in disingenuous marketing as Moa are, you simply don’t get to lecture the likes of ‘Boundary Road’; people in glass houses should perhaps reconsider their projectile-throwing hobbies.